“Love has nothing to do with what you are expecting to get, it’s what you are expected to give–which is everything.”
– Vittorio Alfieri
As the first decade of my life as a husband comes to a close, I cannot help but think on the notions of love, of being relationships, of binding ourselves to another human being. It occurs to me how deficient most people are in truly grasping love as a concept. I certainly am, and I have had plenty of practice.
Growing up, I had some strange ideas about love – a common refrain, I’m sure. I always felt that, in order for my life to have meaning, I needed to have someone special in it. Someone on whom I could lavish affection, gifts, and attention. I wanted more than anything to say those whimsical words, “I love you,” without even really processing the responsibility that came with it. I was more interested in my very skewed perception of a relationship than I was in the reality of one.
Our perceptions are formed from a number of sources: our own parents, our friends, our personal experience, and yes even by the media. How many girls have grown up wanting a love as romantic as the one shared by Romeo and Juliet? How many guys grew up dreaming of being in a relationship with the likes of Cindy Crawford? (Remember that Pepsi commercial? “Look at that great Pepsi can…”)
We grew up in a culture that did more than revolutionize sex – it made it a social imperative. It glorified physical gratification in such a way that you felt completely inadequate if you weren’t doing it with at least two or three people (sometimes all at once) and like it or not, this heavily influenced how our culture regarded it on a higher level.
So for many of us in Gen X, it wasn’t just about “going with” someone, it was about having sex with them. And though my adult sensibilities groan at the notion of teenagers having sex, I cannot help but remember my own experiences at that age – that, I assure you, began well before high school ended (sorry, Mom).
I had a handful of relationships in my youth. I had the “little kid crushes” in grade school. I had my first “real” girlfriend in Junior High, and a number of other progressively more serious relationships. In each one, I’d like to think I was relatively selfless and something of a hopeless romantic. (I unfortunately was plagued with intense jealousy, spawned from traumatic losses I dealt with as a kid; I fear that ruined much of the good I brought to the table). But for each relationship, I was focused more on the idea of being in a relationship than I was on the person. When the relationship didn’t meet my expectations, trouble ensued.
The bottom line is, those expectations had nothing to do with what love is. Because love is much more than butterflies, candy, flowers, and sex. In fact, I daresay love is none of those things at its core. Because at its core love is simply and truly sacrifice. It is putting aside whatever it is you think you want, and taking joy in fulfilling someone else’s needs.
Love is, to a degree, servitude. Not in the derogatory, ball-n-chain sense. Rather, it is a kind of servitude that we submit to gladly, because we want our significant other to feel complete. “Oh, but what about me? I have needs, too.” Sure. We all do. And in relationships that really work, where both people are on the same page about the true nature of a successful relationship or marriage, both sets of needs are met – because both parties put aside their own to address their spouses. It is out of mutual respect for each other, not out of a sense of obligation, that we do this.
This doesn’t mean you walk around completely enslaved to each other to the point where you totally forsake yourself. What it does mean is that you learn to function together for the same purpose, even if your intents and methods don’t always line up. The word “compromise” is tossed around quite a bit in marriage, but it’s used so generically you can’t really appreciate the depth of its meaning or purpose until you’re forced to really examine it first-hand.
My wife and I are not perfect. Believe me, our five children have proven time again just how inadequate we truly are. But one thing we have learned to do is put each other first and trust that we will meet each other’s needs. There is a lot of risk in being so open and vulnerable to someone else. But the rewards are tremendous, and ten years on I am still discovering the beauty of it all.
And it is beautiful. It’s beautiful to me that we have survived what we have. Not that we haven’t been pushed to the absolute and utter brink of destruction – we have, and quite frankly at least one time I didn’t think we’d pull through it. But we did, and that’s a testament to the kind of commitment we share. We accept each other completely. We know we’re not always going to get our way. And we trust each other to be there. We have, and will always, give up the best part of ourselves for each other, and we will always be better for it.
Reminds me of another story of love and sacrifice that I grew up with… of loving someone to the point of giving up literally everything – everything – for them.
In the end, love is willful sacrificing everything for someone else out of nothing more than a desire to make them happy. It’s an alien concept to many. But to those who understand – all of the triteness and hollowness of the oft-quoted words, “I love you,” is replaced with a meaning deeper and more eloquent than many will ever have the privilege to understand.